Future viability and parental participation

By Heinz Brodbeck, November 2019

Academics have investigated the satisfaction of parents in Germany and Switzerland with Waldorf schools. What does the result say about the state of the schools? In which direction do they need to develop?

Foto: © go2/photocase.de

Future viability yes, innovative less so

Parents in both countries think that the Waldorf schools have a viable future. Three quarters think that they possess sufficient power of renewal to evolve their education so that it remains in tune with its time and more than ninety percent would tend to recommend it to others. On the other hand, only half consider the schools to be progressive or flexible and only one third see them as innovative. That should raise concerns because when we look back to its beginnings, we see a school that was innovation personified and which in its educational concept was open to development, implying change. 

A change of image is essential

Now it is not the case that there is no progress in Waldorf schools. It happens daily in lessons, in small steps, invisible to the public. But a change of image is nevertheless essential. Waldorf education has to be able to show that it is created anew in each generation of children and is never finished. Despite indisputable success and impressive careers of its graduates, the challenge remains to show in a convincing way what this school has in reserve for the future so that its art of education can grow far beyond its own playgrounds. Otherwise we will remain a popular alternative for middle class intellectuals instead of becoming a school with a education fit for human beings for all children and young people.

The school of the future should focus on: creativity, empathy, mindfulness, nature and climate, networked thinking as well as digital life, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper found in its issue of 30 December 2018. Don’t we recognise the DNA of the Rudolf Steiner School in that? Even the foundations for a “digital life” have been prepared by Edwin Hübner. He shows how indirect media education has always been predisposed in Waldorf education. But what he proposes as direct media education is still going through its birth pangs in some schools.

A new grasp of the impulse

After hundred years of development work in German-speaking Europe, 83,000 pupils attend Waldorf schools in Germany, 5,200 in Switzerland and 2,700 in Austria. Their proportion related to all pupils in schools providing a general education lies at one percent in Germany and half a percent in Switzerland; their proportion of pupils in private schools providing a general education is almost 17 percent in Germany today and something over three percent in Switzerland. On the one hand, we can marvel at the appreciation of which this is an expression. But on the other, we can hardly talk about a breakthrough of Waldorf education. Following growth and consolidation, has the time now come to grasp the Waldorf impulse in a new way so that pupil numbers also begin to grow again? The Waldorf100 slogan “Learn to change the world” in any event motivates us to do so, promises renewal and the goal.

Work on the guiding principle

Work on the guiding principle attempts to identify the tasks which will determine the adult life of today’s pupils as they arise from new technological and social phenomena, and what the educational response to that should be. It is not enough to define the identity of the school aesthetically. That cements what already exists and tends to be an obstacle to future viability. Work on the guiding principle is joint work that involves the will and is prospective, allowing intuitions about the development of the school to grow. That is why the actual process is more important than the subsequently formulated result.

More transparency

Although Waldorf schools are relatively simple structures, the organigram of some schools reveals highly complex institutions full of checks and counterchecks. Something that was well-meant has created confusion rather than clarity. Responsibilities and processes should be comprehensible also without special “initiation”. The aim of organisation is to avoid chaos, create transparency and at the same time far-reaching freedom so that ideas can arise and be tested. The “Ways to Quality” system, for example, helps to structure the relational services of the school from an anthroposophical perspective.

The improvement of organisation, leadership and management must include the reform of self-governance towards greater professionalism, development and quality controlling, greater efficiency and effectivity and, above all, towards a learning organisation. The quality of the provision, inflow of pupils, teacher potential and financial balance are dependent on one another.

Parent potential

Teachers are faced with parents who largely possess a training which is formally of equal standing, have a strong affinity with education and a certain interest in anthroposophical questions. Parents look to see whether the school lives up to the promised quality and remains alert. In the spirit of co-creation, the specialist potential of parents could be used to a greater extent for the development of the school. Parents should be allowed to assume responsibilities and put their expertise at the service of the school.

It is not just the interaction with parents which is becoming more important and demanding for schools but also the cooperation between the schools, the communication with education studies and education policy. Various forms of interaction to learn from one another lead to insights and can support the reputation of the Waldorf school as a progressive alternative form of education for all children.

Waldorf ingredients

According to the survey, parents choose Waldorf schools because of their particular form of education. Some see differences between their understanding of Waldorf education and what the schools offer. This leads to the difficult questions as to what constitutes a real Waldorf school and what is needed for the latter to fully bring to expression its art of education. Can it have any effect at all without intensive spiritual scientific work? Is it enough to put the curriculum into practice using methodological formalities such as for example  main lessons, drama and not holding children back a year? 

The most prominent unique features of the Waldorf school are its image of the human being and anthroposophy. These should be preserved and explained both internally and externally. This will sharpen the profile of the school. It will lend us weight with regard to others, make us unique, forward-looking and, thanks to our unmistakeable successes in education, attractive. Maintaining and strengthening these ingredients alone gives Waldorf schools their justification and we may then trust that the framework conditions will sufficiently occur. 

Dr. Heinz Brodbeck was a school parent and is an honorary member of leadership bodies of the Swiss Waldorf school movement. In 2018, he undertook the first empirical survey of parents for the Swiss Association of Rudolf Steiner Schools.